James Gray and We Own the Night


Shortly after I saw We Own the Night back in August, I spent about an hour talking with writer/director James Gray at a midtown hotel about his movie for a Q&A over at Film & Video. Could not have been a nicer guy, and I think my estimation of his movie grew a notch or two over the course of the interview. (This is one of the reasons why it’s troublesome, I think, for movie critics to do interviews or have any kind of relationship with the filmmakers they cover — for many of us I think it may be just that tiny bit harder to say something unkind about a movie by someone who’s gone out of his way to be friendly to you.)

We were set to talk mainly about the film’s big car chase scene, which was shot in sunlight but had computer-generated rain added after the fact. But one of the things that interested me was he seemed to come out swinging right away over the idea that his movie had a predictable story — or at least over the notion that “predictability” by itself is a deficit. I trimmed a big chunk of the published interview, partly for reasons of word-count and partly because it wasn’t on-topic for F&V, but also because it contains SPOILERS related to the very last scene of the movie.

Here’s a pretty lengthy excerpt (with SPOILERS) from the cutting-room floor, as it were — and, by all means, please click over to F&V to read the more technical stuff if you find that kind of thing interesting.

BRYANT FRAZER: As I watched the

set-up for the movie, with two brothers, one of whom is running a nightclub and

the other is a police officer, I said to myself, “Well, I think I have an idea

where this is going.”

JAMES GRAY: I had wanted it to be — what’s the word? Inevitable is the word for what happens

to Phoenix’s

character. Somebody said to me, “Is the movie predictable?” I said “I hope so.”

I hope you watch the movie and say, “This guy is going to become something

else.” And you watch it knowing the inevitable is unfolding.

So it’s

predictability versus inevitability. When is it a boon to your story, and when

is it a deficit?

That’s for you to answer, not for me. I can only tell you

that the whole idea of predictability — what’s going to happen next? — for me

is one of the most boring and uninteresting concepts in the history of the

planet. In Shakespeare — Henry IV,

which is really kind of what I based the story on — Prince Hal turns to the

audience two minutes into the play and says to the audience, “I am going to

become the king. Right now I am living the life of a goofball, but you watch:

by the end of the play I’ll be the king.” And then he turns back and re-enters

the play. And the Greeks, obviously in Oedipus,

they spell out everything that is going to happen in the play, because they

knew — the Greeks, they fucking knew everything

— that the idea of plot twists, of the surprise ending, is a temporary

pleasure. They’re not the kind of things that you keep revisiting. They lack a

kind of basic, or more mythic truth. They lack the sense that the world is a

complex or scary place, and that the surprise ending is cheap. It’s a

vulgarity, almost. 

I’m not saying that every movie with a surprise ending is

vulgar, obviously. The Conversation has an incredible narrative twist in it,

but that’s a story development. You don’t watch The Conversation and think it’s

going to end happily. You don’t watch The Godfather and think Michael Corleone

is not going to get involved in the

family business. If you watch something with a surprise ending, you’re

basically wondering what’s going to happen rather than how it happens. How it

happens is, on multiple viewings, a more enriching experience for me.

There’s one

conversation between Phoenix

and one of the drug dealers that goes on and on until it really spells out

what’s going to happen, and exactly who they’re going to go after. So you tell

the audience what you’re going to do — and then you do it. 

Some people would very conceivably, and maybe reasonably,

hate that. I can only tell you that, for me — I like to steal from the old

guys. I feel like if you’re stealing from the Greek dudes, something is right.

That civilization understood everything including the entire basis of

psychoanalysis. Oedipus. That’s genius! Anyway, to me as a product of western

culture, that’s what I was interested in. You watch Godfather 2,  and the whole picture is this inevitable

wasting away of Michael Corleone. There are no surprises, and at the end he

just sort of sits there after having killed his brother and moves from being a

character of ice to a character of stone. Devoid of surprises, that film. [Laughs.] But

it’s an incredible movie.

Was that the kind of

transformation you had in mind? 

No, I was looking for a big character arc. This guy was a

fun-loving guy with tons of sensate pleasures, and his humanity is sort of

lost. I was looking for a story in which a person could become good in the eyes

of others in the story, but that we would watch it and feel otherwise – that he

had given up a large part of himself, and that has a tragic dimension to it. At

the end of Henry IV, he becomes the king, as he tells us he will, and his old

friend Falstaff comes up to him at the coronation and basically says, “Now that

you’re king, we’re really going to party.” And he says to Falstaff, “I know

thee not, old man.” Meaning, “Who are you? Get out of my face.” It’s

devastating. You know that he’s the king, which is great, but you also know

that he gave up the life that he led, which is something he loved. To me that’s

a very interesting narrative idea. You want to do something that can be read

both ways — an ending that has tragic dimensions and not-so-tragic dimensions.

It almost plays as a history. Life is ….

At the end of the movie I wanted him to be this other guy. And then he thinks

he sees Eva Mendes in the audience. And he doesn’t, and the look on his face

doesn’t say, “I’m happy to be a cop.”

That ending scene was

really something. The Eva Mendes character was gone. She had been abandoned,

and I knew there was probably a criticism there of the way Phoenix’s character had been acting. But the

exchange between him and Wahlberg is something like “I love you,” and “I love

you, too.” And it’s like — wow. The love is there, but the cost is enormous. 

They do love each other, probably, but it’s so toxic. It’s

fucked up.

And now they’re both

police, which goes back to the title. And that’s ironic on its own. 

I was meaning to be ironic. I’m glad you got that. One

person I spoke to in France

when I was showing the movie there said, [adopts generic European accent] “I

don’t understand — the film is called We Own the Night, and yet nobody owns the night at the end.

They’re failures. They don’t do anything they want to do.” That’s pretty


I wanted to tell Gray that I nearly burst out laughing at the final

line of dialogue, but I thought he might take it the wrong way, so I

let it go. In truth, it was that last exchange that pushed me over the

barrier from indifferent to pro on this movie. It was so recognizably,

irretrievably fucked up that it worked for me as black comedy — even with a

sexual overtone. And whether or not you buy the family melodrama, the

two big action scenes are surprisingly terrific.

2 Replies to “James Gray and We Own the Night”

  1. So-so movie. BADASS car-chase. And the rain was digital? Even more impressive. Good interviews. Enjoyed the F&V one, too.

  2. Yeah, that’s one of the best “invisible FX” sequences I’ve ever seen. One of the writers just pitched me a VFX story on Kite Runner. Can you believe it? Freaking Kite Runner is a VFX movie!

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